Creativity, Power, and Guitars

A few nights ago, before the New Year was rung in, I sat in my basement fiddling with the television.

I was installing software to my Raspberry Pi so that I could have a full home media center in my basement, complete with live TV, just like the upstairs living room (insert shameless plug for my guide on how to do it here). The installation process on the Raspberry Pi tends to take a little time. I had my netbook sitting next to me with the installation instructions, and I found myself waiting around.

Knowing it would take about 20 minutes or so for the software to finish up, laziness set in.

Ugh, I don’t feel like going all the way upstairs just to come back down here again and check on it all the time.

My wife had friends over, so they had the living room anyway. My options were my office two levels up, or sit down here in the basement. I didn’t feel like surfing the net, even though I had my netbook there. Instead, I leaned back on the futon and glanced around the room. In an indirect way, I was looking for something to do.

My eyes came to rest on an item tucked away in the corner of the room that would be collecting dust if my wife didn’t dust our house every other week. It was an item I loved, but had neglected: my guitar.

Oh, the memories…

I got my guitar in college as a Christmas gift from my folks after professing my love for playing guitar. I was learning from my roommate – and half the guys on our floor. Seeing these guys jam every day and wanting to join in on the fun, I asked them to show me how to play. They all took turns showing me stuff, and I used my roommate’s guitar constantly for practice.

When I got my own guitar, it was great. I could jam with the guys, and we had a lot of fun – until I transferred to another college. I stopped seeing those guys every day.

In one fell swoop, my motivation for playing guitar sank. I didn’t have any other friends that really played guitar, so I had nobody to jam with. There was no musical atmosphere, and practice fell by the wayside. Sure, every other year I’d pick it up and play for a few weeks, but eventually, I’d lose it again.

An unexpected spark ignites inside of me

I felt like this would be one of those moments. If nothing else, it would be a semi-productive use of my time. I grabbed the old girl, fished a pick out of the bag, pulled out my worn, only-kinda-works-90%-of-the-time capo, and checked the strings. A quick “G” chord told me the guitar was, amazingly, pretty close to being in tune. Or close enough that I was just going to play it while the motivation was there.

I flipped open my netbook, opened a new tab, and pulled up Ultimate Guitar. I clicked on the “Top 100 Tabs” and looked for the chord-based music that I knew I could pick back up fairly quickly.

I played quietly, not wanting anyone to hear. After all, there were three women upstairs, and I didn’t want to subject them to missed chords and shaky notes.

But after a couple of run-throughs, it felt like electricity started running through my fingers again. I even started singing a little bit to stuff like I’m Yours or Wagon Wheel. The music grew louder and louder, and before I knew it, I stopped caring about whether or not they would hear me. The sounds coming from both instruments (the guitar and my voice) wasn’t perfect and was dangerously out of practice, but to me, I felt like I was rocking out an Open Mic Night in a coffee shop with everyone cheering me on.

I played until my fingers were burning to the touch – a sure sign that they are out of shape from pressing down the metal strings. But I placed the guitar back on its stand wanting just a little more time with it.

Bringing it back – under control

When I sat down to look over my goals from 2012 and what I wanted to do in 2013, I noticed one thing that not only did I fail it, but it wasn’t even close: learn to play guitar at a performance level.

I made a crucial mistake in writing that goal: it wasn’t measurable. What’s “performance level”, anyway?

So I decided to make a new goal for 2013: play guitar every single day for at least 15 minutes. That’s a measurable goal. That’s something that will produce results over time, and it’s something that I can control.

Power from creativity

But my mind still kept trying to determine why it feels so dang good to play guitar. This morning, as I ran to Target to buy a capo that’s actually going to hold the strings down, I think I found the reason: it’s a creative pursuit, and it gives me power.

Think of your hobbies: if you like to watch TV, that’s cool. But you don’t get any power from watching TV. There’s no flexibility in it, you’re not bringing anything to the table, and you are at the mercy of whatever’s on.

But creative pursuits empower you. You hold that power in your hands. Let me explain.

I love to read, but reading a blog post is something that I can do any time. It doesn’t take long, and I already know how to read, so there’s no practice. I finish a blog post and I move on. But taking the time to write a blog post? That’s power. I control the content on this screen. I determine how it feels, how it sounds, and how it looks. Doing it well takes a lot of practice, and in the end, finishing a good blog post gives you that fire in the belly that says, “YEAH! I’m a writer! This rocks!”

By that same token, listening to music is great, but I hear a song and I move on. But playing a song? That’s a whole different beast. That takes some serious practice. After putting in the hours to learn, once you strike that first chord that sounds like the song you’re trying to play, that fire rises again: “YEAH! I am playing the guitar! This rocks!”

I distinctly remember the moment that fire started up in me when playing guitar. I was playing a little-known song called Timothy by Jet (side note: hey, remember Jet?).

It’s a really easy song to play – only a few chords. As I played through in the rec room of our dorm, it was sounding fine. Then I struck the “E minor” chord that leads into the chorus of the song. Holy cow.

I immediately started strumming that chord as loud as I could. To be fair: it’s an easy chord. Really easy. It takes two fingers right next to each other. But to me, it sounded like the best thing ever. It was exactly the chord that you hear in the song! I was playing the song! By myself! For that brief moment, I was a musician. I was creating music. I still smile at times when I see an “E minor” in a song, because that was the chord that made me want to play guitar all the time.

As I play and write this year, I’m changing my attitude towards it. Yes, it’s practice. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it can be uncomfortable and frustrating at times. But when it works, it is sheer joy. And not only that, it fills me with power. It’s a creation that I hold in my hands, and something that I produced through the coordination of my brain, my eyes, and my fingers.

I work through this stuff for that payoff. When I create, it feels like I’m getting injected with magical steroids that fuel me on, that propel me to bigger and better things.

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you pick up the guitar, sit at the piano, push the trigger button on your camera, or scribble with your pen, remember: this isn’t just practice. This isn’t just rehearsal. This isn’t just something to do.

This is power. You hold it in your hands. Cherish it, hone it, continue building it up, and then do something important with it.

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